This post is part 6 in a series on how to choose children’s books. “How to Choose Children’s Books” is the first in the series if you would like to read from the beginning. Last time, in “Selection Criteria for Children’s Books: Good Stories,” I discussed stories in children’s books, and how to choose stories that are attractive to kids of various ages. In this post I will discuss the role of humor in rendering kids’ books appealing, and I will give some suggestions for how to choose funny children’s books.
Funny Children’s Books
My eldest daughter, Isabella, loves funny children’s books. In particular, she thinks the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip is hilarious. In second grade her teacher had a small classroom library of books that the kids could take home for a few days at a time. The definitive three-volume collection of Calvin and Hobbes, The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, was Isabella’s favorite item in that library. Whenever she had one of the volumes at home, it was hard even to communicate with her, let alone get her to do basic things like eat, sleep, or go to the bathroom in a timely manner. When we did succeed in prying her away from the book, she would usually pass the “time apart” by incessantly recounting strips that she had memorized to whomever would listen (and sometimes to people who wouldn’t…). Isabella now owns the three-volume set (thanks Grandma!) and no matter the topic of conversation, she can usually quote a relevant Calvin and Hobbes strip.
Needless to say, Isabella’s love of Calvin and Hobbes is an object lesson in how powerful humor can be in drawing children to books. Kids love to laugh, so kids’ books that make them laugh are almost automatically appealing to them. On the whole, this is just as it should be. When looking for children’s books, finding funny ones should be a priority. Cosmo Brown had it right in the following video clip from Singin’ in the Rain: Make ’em laugh! (click for clip)
Funny Children’s Books: A Cautionary Word
However, this general embrace of funny children’s books should have at least a hint of caution in it. The problem is, it is sadly common for children’s books to encourage kids to laugh at the wrong kinds of things. For example, some children’s authors have kids laughing at ethical transgressions such as stealing, and at negative adversarial relationships between children and adults. I think this—along with standard potty humor—is the stock and trade of Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants series, as I have pointed out in my relatively negative review of The Adventures of Captain Underpants.
In my view, the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books are in this same vein. Author Jeff Kinney has kids laughing at the mean, self-centered actions and attitudes of the protagonist Greg Heffley (see my review of Diary of a Wimpy Kid). The trouble with provoking kids to laugh at bad actions, attitudes, and relationships, is that it sets up a pattern whereby they take a certain pleasure in these things (or at least in observing them), which, given enough time, begins to wear the wrong kinds of grooves in their character. In other words, when our children consistently take pleasure in bad actions, attitudes, and relationships, such patterns of activity are reinforced in their character. (I have developed this idea a bit further in my review of Diary of a Wimpy Kid)
Now, in some cases it is difficult to distinguish between harmless funny mischief in a children’s book, and character-damaging humor. In fact, as a parent I have wrestled a bit with Isabella’s love of Calvin and Hobbes. Calvin is very mischievous and self-centered at times, and we certainly don’t want his consistently aggravating, disobedient behavior finding its way into our daughter’s character. For this reason we have limited her time with Calvin to brief periods on weekends (compromise, pick your battles, etc.). However, I still think there are clear cases of genuinely funny kids’ books that parents should avoid altogether—The Adventures Of Captain Underpants and Diary of a Wimpy Kid among them.
I will now turn to a discussion of some children’s books that avoid the problems I have cautioned against, and yet remain very funny and appealing for kids. Although it is difficult to analyze humor, I will try to draw out what makes the books funny with the aim of highlighting some general characteristics to look for in good funny kids’ books. I will do this for various age categories.
Humor: Age Appropriate Suggestions
For children in the infant-to-two-years age category, humor in children’s books must be very basic and straightforward. (Remember that a lot of humor is really quite complex, and thus flies over the head of most young children.) For example, when they were young my kids giggled when The Very Hungry Caterpillar ate his way through “one piece of chocolate cake, one ice-cream cone, one pickle, one slice of Swiss cheese, one slice of salami, one lollipop, one piece of cherry pie, one sausage, one cupcake, and one slice of watermelon”, and ended up with a stomachache. What makes this funny is the absurd thought that a caterpillar would eat things like lollipops and cherry pie, and in quantities that even a human would have trouble with!
Another funny book for infant-to-two-year-olds (and for adults reading it to them!) is Helen Oxenbury’s Clap Hands (for my review of Clap Hands click here). Here it just seems to be babies doing baby things—wearing droopy diapers, having funny looks on their faces, pouring juice on their friends, etc.—that makes the book funny (parents have known about this source of humor since time began!). Kids who have outgrown the phase where they do such things—but perhaps only just!—can look on such activity from their new position of relative mastery and see the cute humor in it.
For children in the three-to-five-years age category, the Frog and Toad series is a natural example of funny appealing kids’ books. One thing that makes these books funny is Toad’s eccentricity. For example, in Frog and Toad Together, Toad wakes up one day and decides he will make a list of tasks to do that day, and cross each off the list as he accomplishes it. However, after accomplishing a few of the tasks, Toad’s list blows away in the wind. Frog suggests that they run after the list and try to catch it, but Toad frets that running after his list was not on his list of things to do, and so he can’t do it! Toad then forgets what else was on his list and becomes paralyzed, since he no longer knows what to do.
At this point in the story, my kids are giggling. The main driver of the humor here, of course, is Toad’s absurd eccentricity (which also shows up in many other stories in the books). However, while we think Toad is silly, we are not laughing cruelly at him, i.e., we are not making fun of him. This is mostly because his faithful friend Frog (who is generally more sensible than Toad) embraces him despite his eccentricity, and thus we do too.
Roald Dahl is a master of funny books for children in the six-to-eight-years age category. In many of Dahl’s books, the humor derives from wicked people getting their due in creatively strange ways. For example, in James and the Giant Peach, James’s mean Aunts Sponge and Spiker and get their comeuppance when the giant peach that has grown in their yard breaks free of its mooring and rolls over them, squishing them flat. Later, the Centipede sings a wild funny limerick about the aunts and their death (sample verse: “Aunt Spiker was thin as a wire, And dry as a bone, only drier. She was so long and thin, If you carried her in, You could use her for poking the fire!”). Now, considered literally, this happening is of course a bit gruesome (another consistent feature of Dahl’s children’s books, and something they share with classics like Grimm’s Fairy Tales), but the absurd way it transpires—coupled with the Centipede’s wild poem—make the whole thing funny, in a “dark comedy” kind of way.
For children of nine years and older, character-driven and plot-driven absurdity continue to be excellent sources of humor. However, for this older age group even simple uses of language can be funny. For example, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Book 7), J.K. Rowling humorously describes Ron’s rude Aunt Muriel in the following way: “…Ron reappeared with an elderly witch clutching his arm. Her beaky nose, red-rimmed eyes, and feathery pink hat gave her the look of a bad-tempered flamingo” (p.141). Even a simple description like this can yield a chuckle and help render a book appealing to a child.
With this installment on funny children’s books, I conclude the section of this article series focused on the criterion for choosing children’s books that I have called subjective appeal. As I mentioned at the beginning of this series, when choosing kids’ books adults should look for books that have both subjective appeal and developmental value for the child. In the next article of this series I will begin the second section, which focuses on the criterion of developmental value. I will begin by explaining what developmental value is, and why it is important as a criterion for how to choose children’s books for your students.
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